Wallpaper Monday

Namibia trees

Beverly Houwing took this impeccably timed sunset photo in Namibia. In her caption for the National Geographic Photography contest, she wrote:

The dead trees at Dead Vlei, in Sossusvlei, Namibia, create stark silhouettes against the intense orange color of the sand. A dune towering 1,000 feet creates a backdrop as the shadow cast by a nearby dune moves across the wall of sand and shades the ground and trees of the dry mud flat.

It looks like a painting with exaggerated colors, but it’s a real landscape.

(Click the image to embiggen.)

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The Adorable Octopus

One of the things scientists and naturalists are often loathe to admit in public is that they find all sorts of things cute. For instance, when I worked at a public aquarium, one of my favorite creatures in the whole place was an anemone about three centimeters in diameter. Most people didn’t even notice it in the tank, but I visited it on a regular basis. Oh, little Proliferating Anemone, I miss you!

So it’s always fun when a scientist declares, on video, that she finds something so darn cute that she’s thinking about enshrining its cuteness in its official taxonomic name.

Meet what might end up being the Adorable Octopus, Opisthoteuthis adorabilis. From the YouTube text:

What do you call a tiny octopus with big eyes, gelatinous skin and [which] is cute as a button? Nobody knows quite yet! Stephanie Bush of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute aims to classify and name this presently undescribed deep-sea cephalopod using preserved specimens and a clutch of eggs housed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

I’m guessing MBARI got some worried emails about fragile eggs being under a microscope, because the YouTube text was modified to add:

**DISCLAIMER** from Dr. Stephanie Bush: The Opisthoteuthis eggs depicted in this video are preserved specimens, not the eggs laid at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (which are still being lovingly incubated at MBARI’s Cold Storage Facility!).

Well, that made me feel better. Go, eggs, go!

(Also…did anyone else get a Finding Nemo vibe while watching this video? “I shall call him Squishy and he shall be mine, and he shall be my Squishy.”)

Posted in biology, video | 2 Comments

Wallpaper Wednesday

Mt Fuji at dusk

I love the symmetry of this photo: Mt. Fuji at dusk, taken by Kenichi Sunata.

(Click the image to fujify.)

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It’s a great week for font geeks

For those who love to geek out on the alchemy of designing fonts, this is a week of plentitude. First, Frere-Jones has just published “Typeface Mechanics: 002,” which picks up where 001 left off. This time the discussion centers on degrees of weight, pointing out yet again that simple math doesn’t cut it where the human eye is involved. For instance, the vertical weight of a capital I cannot be mathematically equal to the vertical weight of a capital O. Since the I is straight while the O tapers, the human eye perceives the O as being narrower (or in typographic terms, lighter) overall. Thus, weight must be added in the middle to make it seem equal.

Font weight of verticals

On the other hand, we tend to see horizontal lines and curves as heavier than they really are, so weight needs to be peeled away from those. And these additions/subtractions are not consistent from one font to another, because it depends on the relationship between the horizontals and verticals and how heavy/light/fancy the font design is.

The article is full of clear graphics that beautifully illustrate the concepts. Even if you’re not a font geek but just appreciate the complexities of designing things for the human eye, it’s worth a read.

For the bigger geeks, Apple has put up the “Introducing the new System Fonts” session video on its site. This is the half-hour session from last week’s Worldwide Developer Conference in which a font designer details the new San Francisco system font family to a roomful of app developers. I thought it might be over my head, and the speaker is a tad dry in his delivery, but the graphics are fantastic and the session itself is designed for people who are using fonts in apps, not people who create fonts. So it wasn’t over my head at all, and I was fascinated to learn why this font family has two different sixes and two different nines, and why text fonts (used for smaller type sizes) cannot be the same as display fonts (used for larger sizes). I learned about apertures and fractions and why scaling up doesn’t work, or at least, it doesn’t if you care about aesthetics and ease of use. Before this, I had no idea that a system font family had so many different fonts. No wonder you can’t just substitute any old font in for a system font.

I think font design must be 50% mathematics, 50% biomechanics, and 50% pure artistry. And yes, that’s 150%, but that’s font design in a nutshell: if it makes sense mathematically, then you’ve done something wrong.

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The one we didn’t see and the one we did: Jurassic World and Sense8

My wife and I recently saw the Jurassic World trailer in the cinema, and at its end we turned to each other and said, “Nope.” It was wall-to-wall character clichés. There was the stiff-necked, over-groomed, cold career woman; the brilliant scientist who smiles about an achievement that we all know is going to kill a lot of people because movie scientists are always stupider than regular folks; the kids who get into trouble and must be rescued; and the rumpled manly man who is two steps away from pounding his chest and proclaiming his supremacy. What he actually says is, “If we do this, we do it MY way.”

Make that one step away.

Apparently the special effects are fabulous, but at a certain point, extra-fab effects aren’t enough to overcome stale screenwriting that depends on hoary clichés and pathetic, atavistic sexism. And I appreciate that the director of Jurassic World put all of that into the trailer so we could avoid wasting money on the film.

I’ve read a few reviews, which seem equally divided between “awesome special effects and great fun if you can forget about the cheesy writing and rampant sexism,” and “such bad writing and sexism that even the special effects can’t make up for it.”

Marlow Stern says in his Daily Beast review (which is titled “Jurassic World: A Big, Dumb, Sexist Mess”):

As Claire and Owen travel through the dino-infested rainforests in search of the missing children, he begins to loosen her up through good ol’ fashioned sweet-talkin’. For God knows what reason, Claire is still sporting her work blouse and heels and is very much the distressed damsel, but what do you know, after a few witty barbs he convinces her to roll up her sleeves and tie her shirt in a bow. More sweaty forest shenanigans, and she loses the shirt. And then the heels. Once they’ve emerged from woods, and after avoiding certain death several times, she’s born again: a sweaty, humorous, maternal woman who’s severed her ties to her job and is only concerned with saving her two [nephews]. Oh, and she’s got a man, too.

Jurassic Park didn’t have any of this gendered nonsense—and it was made back in 1993. In Spielberg’s film, which holds up remarkably well, the two protagonists, played by Sam Neill and Laura Dern, are on equal footing. They’re both brilliant doctors who each evade and kick their fair share of scary dino ass. And its patchy sequel, The Lost World, had a kickass woman in the lead, played by Julianne Moore. This new entry is a big step back for a franchise that prided itself on featuring courageous, complex women.

On the other end of the screenwriting spectrum is the Netflix series Sense8, which my wife and I just binge-watched, blitzing through all 12 episodes in four days. It was created, written and produced by the Wachowskis (The Matrix) and J. Michael Straczynski, who has my undying respect for penning the seminal science fiction series Babylon 5. As is typical for JMS, the screenplay is light on clichés and heavy on philosophy.

The people who love Jurassic World will probably hate Sense8. This series expects its viewers to pay attention. It expects us to figure out the bigger picture at the same rate that the characters do, and to do so while simultaneously getting to know eight different characters in eight different locations living very different lives in different cultures. There are four women and four men, all of whom are smart and none of whom pound their chest to proclaim, “If we do this, we do it MY way.” The whole point of Sense8 is that these eight people all have their own skill sets and perspectives to offer the collective, and that they are better off working together than any of them can be alone.

The settings are a delight, bouncing us between San Francisco, Chicago, London (and Iceland), Berlin, Seoul, Mumbai, Nairobi, and Mexico City. The diversity is notable, not just in gender but also in ethnicity and sexuality. There are long conversations about art, religion, philosophy, and how the physical violence others do to us sometimes pales next to the emotional violence we do to ourselves. It is a thinking person’s series.

Which is probably why the professional critics on Rotten Tomatoes give it a 69% rating, stating that “Some of the scenarios border on illogical, but the diverse characters and the creative intersections between their stories keep…Sense8 compelling.”

I can’t remember the last time I saw lack of logic touted on Rotten Tomatoes as a reason to downgrade a film or series. At any rate, the unwashed masses don’t seem to agree with that assessment: the audience rating for Sense8 is 91 percent.

In Jurassic World, you can watch a macho man convert a shrewish woman into a “properly” maternal female. In Sense8, you can watch a gay telenovela heartthrob, who specializes in playing macho men, feel the effects of his first period thanks to his physical connection to one of his cluster mates. The female sensate who actually has her period just rolls her eyes, sighs, and unwraps a tampon. The male sensate reacts with tears, high emotion, and complaints of “My stomach hurts! I think it’s a tumor!” At which point probably half of the viewing audience remembered their first periods and nodded understandingly.

More and more, it seems, the best entertainment is not on the big screen…unless one defines entertainment solely as “spectacular special effects.” It seems that is the one category the movie industry can still win.

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Winner of the Best Short Film at the Nantucket Film Festival, “Dotty” will make you laugh — and then it will break your heart.

Vimeo link.

Hat tip to Inge.

Posted in culture, life, video | 3 Comments

Wallpaper Wednesday

Warrnambool Breakwater

Photographer Dan Atkinson captured this shot of a wave crashing over the Warrnambool Breakwater (Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia) on 24 July 2014. He titled the photo “Smashing” and made the finals of the National Geographic Photo Contest.

(Click the image to smashify.)

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Scarce swallowtail

On my walk the other day, I came across a gorgeous swallowtail butterfly perched on a summer-dead thistle. She had the kind of flawless, shining perfection that only comes from a newly-emerged butterfly. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me, and cursed that fact because this butterfly sat motionless even though I approached within a meter.

This photo by Deviant Art user elminino is a nice example, but still isn’t as perfect as the one I saw.

scarce swallowtail

Turns out it’s very hard to find an image of this butterfly with both tails intact and the black wing stripes undimmed by scratches or loss of scales. In general, large butterflies only look flawless when they first emerge from their chrysalis, because it doesn’t take much flying around to start getting banged up.

The full name for this gorgeous creature is the Southern Scarce Swallowtail, and there’s no agreement on whether it’s a subspecies of the Scarce Swallowtail (in which case it is named Iphiclides podalirius feisthamelii), or a species of its own (Iphiclides feisthamelii).

Caterpillars feed on fruit trees such as almonds, apricots, and cherries, so it’s probably no coincidence that I found mine right next to an almond orchard. She likely emerged from a green pupal form, because here in southern Europe, caterpillars of this species tend to pupate in two different forms: green before August, and brown after August. The green forms are found on the food source and develop directly into adults. The brown forms set themselves up in the leaf litter during the hottest, driest time of year and then go into diapause, which can be thought of as a kind of suspended animation. They hang out until the rains have returned and food sources are growing again, and then finish developing and emerge to mate and lay eggs.

I’ll take my camera on my next walk, which is of course a guarantee that I won’t see hide nor hair of another Southern Scarce Swallowtail.

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Wallpaper Wednesday

Snowbird Trail

Photographer Paul Zizkas has created a portfolio of the ultimate selfies. In this one, he is boulder hopping on the Snowbird Trail in Mount Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada.

I wonder how many times he made that leap to capture the perfect photo.

(Click the image to embiggen.)

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Vertical dancing

Until now, I did not know of the existence of a sport called “vertical dancing” or “Bandaloop dancing.” But watching this video made me into a fan. Filmed during the Art + Soul Festival in Oakland, California, it shows two dancers demonstrating their grace on the side of the City Hall building.

My favorite bit: “I just landed on a window. Sorry!”

Hat tip to Karyn.

Posted in culture, life, video | 4 Comments